JOHN MCCARTHY AGAINST RURAL NEWS

Case Number: 2527

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Rural News

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Farmer and director John McCarthy has complained about an item in Rural News’ satirical column, The Hound, on May 3 and about an article and another appearance in The Hound column (both May 24).

2. The stories cover the sale of Silver Fern Farms’ (SFF) to Chinese investor Shanghai Maling and the criticism of that deal by McCarthy and others. They are just the latest in a series of debates between the paper and McCarthy.

3. The Hound column (which runs without a by-line) on May 3 claims the man behind moves to delay the Shanghai Maling takeover of SFF is Glenthorne Sation owner John Shrimpton, “an ex-pat Pom” whose company address is in Vietnam.

4. The column on May 24 report’s McCarthy’s anger at the earlier column; “possible collusion” between the Meat Industry Excellence lobby group (MIE, which McCarthy used to chair), Shrimpton and Winston Peters as the reason for McCarthy’s concern; and the fact a statement released by McCarthy was “re-publicised” by the white nationalist group The NZ National Front.

5. The May 24 article, by David Anderson, claims that a “consortium of political, industry and business interests” are seeking to overturn the SFF-Shanghai Maling deal.

The Complaint

6. McCarthy complains under three principles: 1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, 7) Discrimination and Diversity, and 9)Subterfuge.

7. While it took some effort to narrow the focus of McCarthy’s concerns, ultimately he says the paper’s criticisms of him paint him as “anti-Chinese and racist”, are “incorrect conspiracy theories” and denigrate legitimate concerns raised by him and others. He found it particularly offensive to be linked to a racist right-wing group.

8. McCarthy argues the May 3 Hound piece is “vexatious” and incorrect on two fronts. First, it implies a liaison between Shrimpton and Peters in their opposition to the deal. He says “to the best of my knowledge” they have had no contact and acted “separately and independent” of each other. Second, it misrepresents the shareholders’ concerns, by suggesting they are “racially based”.

9. On the May 24 Hound column, McCarthy finds most offensive of all being linked to a white supremacist group.

10. As for the May 24 article, the complainant describes that as “incorrect and unfair”.

11. McCarthy concedes the paper is right to report that he is a director of Shrimpton’s Glenthorne Station. However, contrary to the story’s suggestion, “we have both been careful to keep this separate” and he has not discussed the SFF deal with him or been privy to any discussions about the issue. He adds that the reporter “at no stage” sought comment from him.

12. McCarthy, who remains an MIE member, further complains that the story’s linking of MIE, NZ First and some SFF shareholders is without foundation, writing “I have asked and been assured that at no time has there been contact between Shrimpton, Gallagher et al and NZ First or representatives thereof”.

13. His final complaint on accuracy is that the story alleges MIE is “directly involved” with the shareholders’ group, whereas he says MIE made the deliberate decision to “curtail involvement with the SFF group”. Anderson never contacted a member of MIE to check that.

The Response

14. In reply to McCarthy, Rural News General Manager Adam Fricker writes that recent correspondence from the complainant amounted to “deliberate intimidation” and, in background for the Press Council, says McCarthy has been a persistent critic of the SFF deal and his “shoot-from-the-hip style” has concerned industry leaders.

15. Also as background, Fricker says MIE, NZ First and the Shrimpton group share the same worldview on meat industry matters and issue releases “usually in concert”. “Mr McCarthy’s claims that the parties have no association beyond a common worldview are either disingenuous or plain ignorant”.

16. On the May 3 Hound complaint, Fricker says the Hound column states facts, which were raised “to highlight the hypocrisy of those two parties [NZ First and Shrimpton] lobbying to prevent foreign ownership of a New Zealand meat company”.

17. On the May 24 Hound complaint Fricker denies linking McCarthy to the National Front. By revealing the group re-published one of McCarthy’s statements, “it demonstrates that this group of racists has perceived Mr McCarthy’s views on a Chinese takeover of SFF as being supportive of their own worldview. This is exactly the perception problem meat industry leaders were concerned about…”

18. Fricker says the May 24 article for the first time reveals McCarthy’s formal commercial relationship with Shrimpton, relevant because both were lobbying to stop the SFF. In response to McCarthy’s argument that he had never been involved in or privy to meetings or discussions on the issue, Fricker says “Rural News has never stated otherwise”.

19. He also replies that Rural News never claimed MIE was “directly involved” with the shareholder group’s actions. So no comment was sought from McCarthy to balance those claims, because those claims were in fact never made.

20. Fricker also argues that while McCarthy may want “the associations between these parties be kept under wraps”, it is vital industry stakeholders have all the facts. He continues, that “our desks already groan under the weight of material from all parties mentioned in the articles”, much of it has been published their positions on the industry issues are well-known. “The relationships between the parties have been less obvious until now, and are all either on public record or verified by other sources”.

The Decision

21. The complainant offers no evidence suggesting Rural News has failed to meet the standards outlined under Principles 7 and 9, sothe complaints on those grounds are not upheld. The remainder of the discussion will focus on Principle 1.

22. The Council notes a significant amount of personal antipathy in the submissions from both parties, but the industry debate, broad brush criticisms of theRural News and whether or not McCarthy is xenophobic or a bully are irrelevant to this body and complaint, as is McCarthy’s father’s former position on the Press Council.

23. The May 3 Hound column reports that Shrimpton is behind the call for SFF to run another poll on the merger and that his action “comes on the back of” opposition by Winston Peters. This does not imply a liaison, as the complainant claims, but simply reports a shared worldview. It is also reasonable for the paper to reveal Shrimpton’s nationality and company address given the issues surrounding this case. McCarthy may disagree with the paper’s argument, but it is based on fact and is newsworthy.

24. The May 24 Hound column is equally careful in its language. While it is undoubtedly critical of McCarthy, the complainant has taken a public –indeed vocal – stance on a controversial issue, and therefore must be willing to take as well as give.

25. As for the National Front reference, McCarthy does not dispute the fact that the group re-published his statement. It is undoubtedly newsworthy to report that but does not suggest any link between the complainant and the group. While McCarthy is offended by the column, the paper has every right to report the fact and the complainant does not have the right to not be offended.

26. The article creates more problems, however. The heart of the complaint about the article is that it was inaccurate when it alleged McCarthy, Shrimpton and New Zealand First were secretly involved in efforts to overturn the SFF deal with Shanghai Maling. The story, McCarthy says, was therefore unfair, as he was never approached for balancing comment.

27. Fricker accepts that balancing comment was never sought, but argues that’s because the story doesn’t say what the complainant claims it does. The story, he says, does not claim McCarthy was involved with the “eclectic consortium” it reveals. Indeed, it only says of McCarthy that he is “closely aligned to Shrimpton” and never specifies who, of those named in the story, are part of the alleged consortium. So the question becomes, does a reasonable reading imply McCarthy is part of the “group” or “consortium” unveiled by this story?

28. The Council believes it does. The purpose of the story is to reveal the existence of a group working together to oppose the deal, and it discusses McCarthy amidst those it is revealing (as Fricker says, for the first time) as members of this group. Anderson starts one paragraph just after some discussion of McCarthy, “Also linked…”.

29. In his response, Fricker further claims McCarthy is part of the group in the report, saying the complainant wants to keep “the associations… under wraps”. He continues that the relationships between the parties were unclear until this report, but are “all either on public record or verified by other sources”. The problem for Rural News is that none of those public records or sources are quoted. The article makes specific assertions about McCarthy, which may or may not be accurate, but offers no evidence to substantiate them or, as noted, right of reply to the complainant and others. Without that evidence the story does not prove its accuracy and without that right of reply, the story lacks balance.Therefore the complaint against Principle 1 regarding the May 24 article is upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Verno